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Zorn’s Prickly Harmony

John Zorn

John Zorn is over 50 but could pass for 35. Clad in camouflage pants and a bright orange T-shirt, with tzitzit (tassels, worn by Orthodox Jews) hanging from his waist, he took the stage at Columbia University’s Miller Theater to do a pre-concert interview. George Steel, Miller’s executive director, knew Zorn’s oeuvre backwards and forwards and was able to engage the notoriously prickly composer in focused conversation for nearly an hour. What prompted Zorn to write music for string quartet? “It’s like guitar/bass/drums. It’s one of the few forms that’s still kicking ass.” Why doesn’t he write concert music for the saxophone? “Because it sounds like shit.” And from the audience: Would he care to discuss his work with the Japanese noise-rock band The Boredoms? “Fuck you.” Oddly, this didn’t sound disrespectful; it was more like a playful poke in the ribs. Behind the profanity and general outrageousness lies a sensitive, serious and bewilderingly gifted musician, with an output that may well be huger and more diverse than anyone alive.

The Miller Theater, by the way, is a treasure, where one can hear everything from Brahms to Conlon Nancarrow for about $20, all season long. The presentations are offbeat and inventive. Steel not only gets why classical music still matters; he also knows how to explain it to a new and growing audience. Zorn attracted an especially big and youthful crowd, but the ambitiousness and high-level performances were not out of the ordinary for this inspiring venue.

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